Never make predictions, especially about the future

December 29, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

internet hoax, widely believed! The panacea of technological innovation is routinely trotted out by political leaders faced with difficult problems. Poverty? A laptop in every village! Climate Change? Carbon capture and storage, with a side helping of biofuels! So no need to ask, let alone answer, difficult questions on distribution, or possible environmental limits to growth – the magic bullet of technology will get us all off the hook.

Personally, I’m a sceptic – technology often fails to deliver, is subject to issues of power and control just like everything else, and is too often an excuse for political inaction. Nuclear fusion providing free, clean energy has been the technology of the future for at least the last 50 years, and will probably be so for the next 50.

But my colleague Kate Raworth points out that futurologists often err in the opposite direction, underestimating the speed and scale of technological change. Here are some choice examples:

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  (Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943)

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” (Western Union internal memo from 1876)

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”  (Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895)

And not just on technology:
“Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” (Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929)

If you like this kind of stuff, visit the thought mechanics website. Very funny.

Kate’s clinching argument was actually a photo, (see top of this post), purportedly a 1954 Rand Corporation prediction of what home computers would look like by 2004. Unfortunately the photo turned out to be a hoax, but it’s so good I’m including it anyway….


December 29, 2008
Duncan Green